Ron Rosenbaum, Writer

June 29, 2008

Distinguishing Dylan and Springsteen: One Theory

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 8:01 am

It’s a perennial, never to be resolved debate. Although I don’t think it has to be a debate! I don’t think you have to choose sides! You can choose both. Although I do believe that you have to recognize there are, I’m not sure how to put it precisely, different levels of imaginative incandesence.

Here’s my friend Elizabeth Wurtzel writing in The Guardian about why some of us can love some Bruce, without diminishing the stature of Bob.

It’s mostly about Bruce but here’s her conclusion which turns upon the distinction between Bruce and Bob:

“Never quite the genius of language that Bob Dylan is – no one is nor will anyone ever be – what Springsteen lacks in lyricism, he makes up for in communication: he is among us in a way that Dylan is forever separate. Bruce is always hoping his audience will get it; he’s going for comprehensibility in all the places where Dylan might be looking for his own laughable obfuscation. That’s the richness in all Springsteen lyrics: the narrator feels for everybody – the good and the bad, the ugly and the gorgeous – and most especially for the person out there who happens to be listening to, or reading, the words. Bruce Springsteen is, above all, a songwriter of the people, for the people, by the people”

There’s a lot about that I’d agree with, although I tend to think that Dylan’s love songs are among the most oure comprehenible, almost primal even written. Think of “I’ll Keep It With Mine”, “If You See Her Say Hello”.

What I suggested to Elizabeth was another possible way of distinguishing them, one that overlaps in a way with hers. Earnestness and irony. I’d say that Bruce is always earnest. Bruce gives earnestness a good name, an urgency; he understand sthe true imortance of being earnest. . Dylan is sometimes earnest (in the love songs and some of the protest songs0 but never far from irony.

In fact the one time Bruice went for irony “Born inthe U.S.A.”, a lot of people misunderstood, calling it a patriotic anthem. Ron Kovic wrote a book that became an Oliver Stone movie, both withthat titlem nobody understood them as
“patriotic anthems”, but Bruce had the ability to invest the grandiosity he meat as ironic with an inerradicable earnest sincerity that made the irony easier to mishear. (Dylan is capable of misleading you with his beguiling melodies:It took me a while to realize that “Positively Fourth Street was a bitter insult revenge song because it’s melody was so (ironically I now realize) cheery and catchy.

I think another way they part profoudnly is the way they write about loneliness. Bruce makes it seem like all loneliness is alike (like all happy familes). for Dylan almost all loneliness is different. (“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”)

I wonder if readers can suggest other distinctions–or convergences– in the comments.



  1. if i could say it simply?
    springsteen is the preacher.
    dylan is the prophet.

    Comment by paul kramer — June 30, 2008 @ 12:23 pm | Reply

  2. I’m a Dylan fan and Springsteen enjoyer and I feel like a newcomer to the Bruce-Bob debate–it doesn’t seem a debate to me. Tunnel of Love v Blood on the Tracks? Bruce does what he must do and he does it well. He maintains a consistent relationship with his fans by always being the Bruce they want, and he has enough integrity to do this without demeaning himself. His songs are strong and shallow outlines of a middle class america and his listeners feel their worlds and lives enlarged and ennobled by this charismatic music and charismatic performer. Bruce never makes you look into an abyss, he wouldn’t know an abyss. He is never on the razor’s edge of despair or disintegration because he is honest in having no experience of these conditions. There is never lust, never self-loathing or subtle states of egoism and self-effacement, never nightmares of doubt and isolation in Bruce, because he is honest about not being able to write and sing about these conditions. In Tunnel of Love, he offers himself as a decent man struggling with a marriage failing in the way decent people’s marriages fail: just not enough to hold it together. It’s all sad and sorry, but there is no madness, no obsession,, no Dirge and no You’re a Big Girl Now, and none of the excruciating glimpses of passion and understanding that show you the cost of the failed relationship that we get from Dylan. The thought of Bruce Springsteen writing Idiot Wind is preposterous and unjust–he couldn’t and he wouldn’t want to. Bruce is trapped by a charisma and and energy that must be consistent to maintain his relationship with his audience, his songs serve the charisma, and we must admire him deeply for knowing this and wearing his chains with dignity, willingly and generously. Bob Dylan’s talent is a mysterium tremendum because his art is unprecedentedly human and mortal–infinite, terrifying, darkness and light, and his own charisma is never consistent or quantifiable and often terribly difficult, never simply satisfying. I think Bruce’s peculiar generosity and dignity are actually ill-served by theories pitting him against Bob Dylan.

    Comment by Nina Goss — June 30, 2008 @ 6:33 pm | Reply

  3. For a convergence of Bruce and Bob I suggest Tweeter and the Monkey Man from the Traveling Wilburys.

    I recently saw Bob Dylan in Canada. You may be pleased to hear that Positively Fourth Street in its present arrangement and vocal delivery, sounds, while not cheery,positively

    Comment by Ace — July 1, 2008 @ 8:36 am | Reply

  4. At Bruce’s concerts, we sing all the lyrics with him; at Dylan’s, we only do it during “Like a Rolling Stone”, “It’s All Right, Ma”,… and “Silvio”!

    Comment by charlie finch — July 1, 2008 @ 8:57 am | Reply

  5. I like Nina Goss’s comment here very much, though I would quarrel with her statement “Bruce is trapped by a charisma and and energy that must be consistent”. I feel the quality she aptly identifies in Bruce is there because his personality is simply more whole, more integrated. Dylan’s ‘depths’ are revealed because he lacks something in his character that would cover it up. He is raw and exposed to himself in a way that Bruce is not.

    In the same vein, Bruce’s songs are populated by friends, groups of peers, a social milieu that is, more or less, nurturing. Dylan’s songs are peopled by the relentlessly isolated or the bitterly individual.

    Comment by JMSeaver — July 1, 2008 @ 11:56 am | Reply

  6. I liked Bruce for about two years back in the 70s. The first LP was derivative of Dylan, but not with the punch or expansiveness. “Born to run” had some good moments but I found myself tired of it after about the third play. Dylan makes us think. Bruce tells us what he thinks and wants us to think the same way. Dylan is an original. Bruce is less interesting because his vision is more narrow and predictable. Dylan higher highs and perhaps lower lows. Bruce puts on a good show. Dylan isn’t about the show, but the art. Think Norman Rockwell vs. Picasso.

    Comment by Martin Grossman — July 1, 2008 @ 5:04 pm | Reply

  7. If you play the vinyl album “Darkness on the Edge of Town” at 45rpm as I did by accident one day a long time ago, you will find yourself listening to a big chunk of Phil Spector’s catalog, mostly the Crystals.

    If you play Blonde on Blonde at 45rpm, you will essentially be listening to a preview of Slow Train Coming.

    I don’t know what that means in the larger scope of things. However I do love and need both these artists in my life for different reasons at different times.

    Comment by roy frowick — July 2, 2008 @ 11:54 am | Reply

  8. Funny, I was just thinking about this the other day, in the context of “Chronicles”. One of the reasons that memoir is so much better than anything else written about that Greenwich Village at that time is that it is written by a guy who was doing something quite different from what everyone else was doing. Even though Dylan was mining many of the same sources, the processing that the raw material went through was a unique genius. Everybody was listening to folk songs, everybody was ready poetry, but Dylan was inventing something new, and everybody else was working within existing forms. The difference between Dylan and Springsteen is the same as the difference between Dylan and Phil Ochs, and I say that as an admirer of all four, and with all due respect.

    If there’d been no Bob Dylan, there would have been no Bruce Springsteen. The artists that depend on Springsteen as a fountainhead are a pretty derivative group: Melissa Etheridge, Thin Lizzy, Meatloaf. I’d venture to say that after Chuck Berry no other rock’n’roll artist has been as great an influence. American music sounds different today because of Bob Dylan.

    Comment by Bill Altreuter — July 11, 2008 @ 11:40 am | Reply

  9. My brother liked Dylan and Springsteen. Iliked Springsteen and Dylan’s Hurricane.

    Comment by Jack Garvey — September 1, 2008 @ 2:12 pm | Reply

  10. in my opinion dylan should and im sure will always be remembered as the most important songwriter, musician, call it what you like, of the 20th century,he is without doubt unique,i will on occasions listen to springsteen but to compare them,i think is ridiculous,dylan is simply in another sphere(on his own)

    Comment by stephen thomas — December 22, 2008 @ 6:38 am | Reply

  11. good reads. I am a fan of both. I have never been tired of Dylan. Always inovative and original. I can never invision a day when I do not look forward to listening to Dylan.
    I was a huge Springsteen fan. In the beginning he seemed to be everything I wanted in a songwriter, but he has become stale to me. That is not to say he is stale. I have become more demanding as a listener, and Springsteen doesn’t fulfill that musical need I have as an older music lover. I’m sure to new Springsteen fans he is everything he was to me to them. It is almost as if I “went through” Springsteen. As I’ve grown older, Springsteen appears calculated, contrived, and somewhat phony. I almost feel juvenile listening to him. I don’t want to feel that way. I just do. He is obvious in his intentions as a songwriter. It was kinda cool being kicked in the ass as young adult by Springsteen…That “Oh, I get it Bruce!” feeling…”Play that one again!” Now, his songs are “yes, yes I get it already. I get it.”
    It would be as if Dylan never got out of folk and kept writing “protest songs”. It would be predictable and tireing.

    Comment by Dave — January 11, 2009 @ 10:23 am | Reply

  12. “Bruce never makes you look into an abyss, he wouldn’t know an abyss. He is never on the razor’s edge of despair or disintegration because he is honest in having no experience of these conditions.”

    Are you kidding? If you’re going to compare the two be familiar with both artists music. Listen to the Nebraska album. Is this not the “abyss”?

    “Maybe you got a kid, maybe you got a pretty wife the only thing that I got’s been both’rin’ me my whole life
    Mister state trooper, please don’t stop me
    Please don’t stop me, please don’t stop me

    Or from Darkness on the Edge of Town:

    “They’re still racing out at the Trestles
    But that blood it never burned in her veins
    Now I hear she’s got a house up in Fairview
    And a style she’s trying to maintain
    Well if she wants to see me
    You can tell her that I’m easily found
    Tell her there’s a spot out ‘neath Abram’s Bridge
    And tell her there’s a darkness on the edge of town

    Everybody’s got a secret Sonny
    Something that they just can’t face
    Some folks spend their whole lives trying to keep it
    They carry it with them every step that they take
    Till some day they just cut it loose
    Cut it loose or let it drag ’em down
    Where no one asks any questions
    Or looks too long in your face
    In the darkness on the edge of town

    Some folks are born into a good life
    Other folks get it anyway anyhow
    I lost my money and I lost my wife
    Them things don’t seem to matter much to me now
    Tonight I’ll be on that hill ’cause I can’t stop
    I’ll be on that hill with everything I got
    Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost
    I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost
    For wanting things that can only be found
    In the darkness on the edge of town”

    Bruce has created a cast of characters, a community. His music has dealt with teen-age innocence, personal despair, political anger. Bruce’s catalog is the greatest story I have ever followed. Dylan due to the time period in which he came out and his writing skills will always be the most influential, but I would take Bruce Springsteen’s writing any day. I enjoy Dylan, but Springsteen speaks to me on an emotional level.

    Comment by Warren — June 16, 2009 @ 5:54 pm | Reply

  13. This is such a great discussion and I really think that even though you don’t have to choose, I see it as a matter of justice to say what I am about to say. Although he’s been out there for more than three decades and has a great reputation and a vast base of supporters, Bruce Springsteen remains for me one of the most under-rated artists ever. People tend to place Dylan above Springsteen because he came first. And certainly without Dylan we’d probably not be talking about Springsteen. That doesn’t make Dylan better. If you listen to Springsteen’s two first albums, you can see the influence from Dylan and the 60’s. What is amazing is how he goes on to break with it in the 70’s and 80’s. I’m sorry, my friend, but Dylan did never do such a master love album as Tunnel of Love, one of the greatest ever on the subject. Highway 61 Revisited is a master-piece, but it comes short of Born To Run, which is a milestone for music. Not only it is an incredible heir to the 60’s heritage, but it breaks with it in a unique way. Thunder Road leads the way, but then come Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, Night, Born To Run and Jungleland. Dylan could have never written such songs. Dylan making music on a piano or working through every note of a 2 minutes 30 seconds piece of saxo? Are you kidding? At the same time, no other music career is as large as Springsteen’s. He goes from Born in the U.S.A to Highway Patrolman, moving through Thunder Road, One Step Up, The River… There is so much more of Springsteen than there has even been of Dylan.

    Comment by Servat — October 20, 2009 @ 12:51 am | Reply

  14. Dylan writes brilliant lyrics for the head, Springsteen writes brilliant lyrics for the heart. ’nuff said.

    Comment by Mike — January 31, 2010 @ 11:10 am | Reply

  15. LOVE Springsteen! LOVE Dylan! I’ve been through Springsteen, and I am satisfied. I cannot envision a time when I will “go through” Dylan, and my thirst for more cannot be quenched. I forever find myself needing more Dylan.

    Comment by Dave — February 25, 2010 @ 7:19 pm | Reply

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